The work songs of the Menhaden Chanteymen grew out of North Carolina's Commercial Fishing Industry

January 25, 2019


The North Caroilna Arts Council is back with a new music themed season of their podcast Arts Across NC called "Director's Cut." Over the next four episodes, Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council, will unearth a field recording from the archive he built during his 30+ year tenure with the agency. Each song represents a different region of North Carolina.

"These pieces that I've chosen are part of the fabric of who we are as a people," says Wayne. "They are pieces that tell the story of North Carolina."

Up first is the song "Going Back to Weldon," performed by the Menhaden Chanteymen in 1988.

There was a time when a stinky, oily fish ruled eastern North Carolina. From the late 1800s through much of the 20th century, menhaden sat at the economic epicenter of Beaufort, North Carolina. Year in and year out, generations of working class men and women caught, processed, packaged and shipped menhaden, also known in North Carolina's Core Sound region as shad. As the town grew alongside the burgeoning industry, so to did a new style of work song developed by African American men who often handled the back-breaking work of hauling in thousands of pounds of fish. These songs- called chanteys - outlived the industry itself and today we share the story and music of the Menhaden Chanteymen.

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It Started as a Prayer

January 16, 2019

Born in 1929, Reverend Faircloth C. (F.C.) Barnes was a gospel recording artist from Rocky Mount, N.C. His debut record Rough Side of the Mountain, a collaboration with with Reverend Janice Brown, reached #1 on Billboard’s Gospel Albums chart in January 1984. The North Carolina Arts Council profiled Reverend Barnes, and the hit-song, in the African American Music Trails Guidebook. The following excerpt is from the book.

The Reverend F.C. Barnes and Reverend Janice Brown met at Rocky Mount radio station WSRV, while hosting a gospel show together in the late 1970s. Their recording career started when they made a home reel-to-reel recording of “It’s Me Again Lord” to play on their broadcast. Listener response was so ecstatic that the station manager encouraged them to make a studio single so that he could legally play it on the air. Shortly thereafter with the single in regular rotation at WSRV, the duo was picked up by AIR/Malaco. They went on to release eight albums on the southern soul, blues, and gospel imprint between 1979 and 1988.

Rough Side of the Mountain was penned by Barnes after some car trouble on his way to a revival. After the song’s release in 1984, it occupied the number one spot on the gospel charts for more than a year, went gold, and earned Barnes and Brown a Grammy nomination. Here’s Reverend Barnes had to say about the song:

“Rough Side of the Mountain was a prayer. It was initially a prayer. I was going to Tabor City, North Carolina for a revival, about 175 miles from here. That evening, when I got below Lumberton, North Carolina, on Highway 74, something got wrong with the car. I don’t know what it was, never have known, but it just started slipping and shaking. They had just put the new part [of Highway 74] out there then, and for 20-some miles there were no stores, no nothing out there. And I said, Lord, if this car cut off out here—there was no service stations, no nothing—I don’t know what in the world I’m going to do. So I start praying to the Lord and [told] the Lord how hard it was times coming up, trying to do this and that, little money, car wasn’t doing too well, and still trying to do the work of God. And somehow or another, it struck me in my mind, “It’s rough, it gets rough out here.” Nobody in the car but me. I just was talking, and I started praying, “Lord, having it so hard,” and not only the car thing being in my spirit, but other things I’ve run into before, and this and that—everything.

And I said, “Lord, you just know that I’m trying to do what I know. A lot of people are trying to do the will of God like they were sailing smooth. I’m doing the will of God, but with everything I put my hand on, it’s something else.” And like I was telling, there was two sides: they’re going up on the smooth side. I’m going up on the rough side. And I prayed that prayer. I got stuck in the prayer, and I don’t know when the car stopped skipping. When I come to myself, the car had stopped skipping, was running smooth going down the road. But when I got to the church, the Deacon had already called my house because it was time for service and I wasn’t there. But the words of that song wouldn’t leave me, and that prayer wouldn’t leave me. So I goes back, after service. I go to my room and it wouldn’t go away, so I just started writing. So when I got back to Rocky Mount, I told Janice, a lady that sung with me, that I had a song that we need to learn. So we called the musicians. We started singing the song, learned the song. Wasn’t thinking about no hit or no nothing. This was not the purpose of it. The song was a prayer and it was true, and not just something with words made up. And we put the song on the album.

For white, black, everybody that heard it, [“Rough Side of the Mountain”] seemed to be in their life. And they took it for their life, coming up on the rough side of the mountain, when I got to hold God’s hand, it doesn’t matter. A lot of people quit when it gets rough, but I didn’t quit. And the song had a meaning to it, but I didn’t write it to nobody but myself. I wasn’t thinking about the public.”

Happy Birthday Libba Cotten!

January 5, 2019

American blues and folk musician Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born on January 5, 1893 in Carrboro, N.C. Perhaps best known for teaching the world “Freight Train,” Cotten grew up near the railroad track which inspired her to write “Freight Train” at age 11, two years before she went to work as a domestic worker.

Married at 17, Cotten spent years moving around the country with her husband Frank Cotten only to divorce and settle in Washington, D.C. once her daughter was married. While doing domestic work for the family of composer and folklorist Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger, Cotten idly picked up a guitar and revealed herself to be precisely the kind of folk musician the Seegers held up as an ideal. By then she was more than 60-years-old. Seeger’s son Mike recorded her songs, releasing them just in time for the Folk Revival of the early 1960s. Cotten toured the world and won a Grammy in 1984 a year before her death. Her music has been covered by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Doc Watson, and her signature fingerpicking style - crafted in part because she played her guitar upside down and backwards, is known as “Cotten picking.”


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